Cowboys and whispering
Do you want an insentient horse or an animated horse?Do you want to be with a horse that behaves in a dull, turned off way; everything learned by rote? Or do you want to hang out with a horse that is cheerfully involved with you?
The ascendancy of natural horsemanship methods in the 80’s puzzled me along with a new term ‘horse whispering’. Modern cowboys appeared to have repackaged the traditional systems known to me as a child. These were methods using physical or emotional pressure to provoke a reaction from the horse. One way that natural horsemanship methods differed was their slick marketing and adherence to a strict path towards the apex of their training pyramid. Years later and having worked with several clients who have studied these methods closely, I see merit in their observational skills. I can also see how they provide a place for people to belong, a group to be part of, fulfilling an inherent need for many us.
A good fit for the horse
There are good and bad practitioners of all methods – individuals placing on a continuum that make it hard for prospective students to determine the benefits, to the horse, of any method. The benefits to the human of a group system with novel terminology and a clear pathway to success are obvious but how are they perceived by a horse?
It is for each of us to determine the natural horse and decide whether the methods we choose are a good fit for them. To determine the true nature of horses we must look to their ancient past, their innate selves and not rely on the domestic myths they have become. Using this knowledge coupled with an understanding of how animals learn we can shape our vision of a relationship.
Truth, misunderstandings and the excitement of novelty
Can a method based on the misunderstanding that there is some kind of equine ‘pecking order’ be relied on to build harmony between horse and human? Can a method that relies on teaching ‘who is the boss’ underpin your relationship with your horse? My advice is not to ask me but to observe your horse.
When we find a new path it can blind us to everything else. I remember the exhilaration when I first discovered that clicker training (I had previously dabbled with my dogs) worked with horses too. I was so excited that I made crappy little videos and shared my excitement with anyone who would listen. Very few did listen back then and even now there are far less trainers using positive reinforcement than traditional methods.
Finally clicking with something
I fell in and out of love with the clicker as I struggled with the difference between dogs and horses. What I often failed to see were the parallels not just between horses and dogs but between all living beings in the way that they learn.
The greatest and worst thing about positive reinforcement training is that it highlights trainer error. Not only do you have to learn the mechanics of a new system but you have to become sharply aware of managing the environment. Managing the training environment is so important and often overlooked. I think the natural horsemanship era came close to addressing this and perhaps this is why their crossover trainers (trainers changing to positive reinforcement) are often so good at the detail and have good observational skills.
Not all of my students use purely positive reinforcement in their training. This can be for a number of reasons; the student may not be ready to adopt a new system or may not believe their horse is ready. I rarely turn students away and find that over a period of time they begin to see the true nature of horses for themselves. My aim is to remain open and enquiring so that they might do so too. I’ll admit I’ve been dismissive of other methods in the past but it has (rightly) got me nowhere. Who wants to be told they are wrong? Almost everybody has a worthwhile opinion that I can learn from.
Everyone likes a label!
I’m aware that I pepper my writing with mention of clickers, positive reinforcement and learning theory, for those that don’t understand the terms it may be confusing. One friend is most irritated by my behavioural speak and has kindly informed me so. I’m grateful to her because without such honesty I wouldn’t be aware of how others perceive my training.
The truth is that I struggle to stick a label on what I am. I am a clicker trainer (sad geek level) and I use the principles of learning theory. I guide students towards a better understanding of ethology. I help partnerships develop sound principles of gymnastic dressage and balance in their riding. But above all I am a pragmatic trainer and coach blending principles to suit each horse and human on the path they currently find themselves on.
As a certified behaviourist with the IAABC I actively apply LIMA principles that allow horses some control over their training at the same time as respecting the innate horse. In this organisation I finally found me!